The lost art of looking at plants
When Elizabeth Kellogg finished her PhD in 1983, she feared that her skills were already obsolete. Kellogg studied plant morphology and systematics: scrutinizing the dazzling variety of plants’ physical forms to tease out how different species are related. But most of her colleagues had already pivoted to a new approach: molecular biology. “Every job suddenly required molecular techniques,” she says. “It was like I had learned how to make illuminated manuscripts, and then somebody invented the printing press.”
Kellogg had graduated near the start of a revolution in plant biology. Over the next few decades, as researchers adopted molecular tools and DNA sequencing, detailed analyses of plants’ physical traits fell out of fashion. And because many geneticists worked with only a few key organisms, such as the thale cress Arabidopsis thaliana, they didn’t need expertise in comparing and contrasting different plant species. At universities, botany departments folded and molecular-biology departments swelled. Kellogg, now at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St Louis, Missouri, adapted: she embraced genomics, and combined it with her morphology skills to trace the evolution of key traits in the wild relatives of food crops.
But lately, Kellogg has noticed a resurgence of interest in the old ways. Advances in imaging technology — allowing researchers to peer inside plant structures in 3D — mean that biologists are seeking expertise in plant physiology and morphology again. And improvements in gene editing and sequencing have liberated geneticists to tinker with DNA in a wider range of flora, giving them a renewed appetite to understand plant diversity.